As the dialogue about what Kent’s financial future holds in store has become the topic of choice around water coolers and barber shops I find myself doing a lot of soul searching looking for solutions for City Council to consider. My job as City Manager is to ensure that the professional staff and I provide the highest levels of service possible with the resources that City Council provides us with to do the job. And I can assure you that’s what we’ll do no matter how the tax question turns out. I’m proud of what the City staff have done to delay the tax discussion through cost cutting and saving initiatives but as I listen to the tax debate I see that we haven’t done a good job telling our cuts and savings story. Most people say before considering a tax change the City needs to tighten it’s belt, and I couldn’t agree more, and that’s exactly what we’ve been doing to the tune of nearly $6 million dollars since 2005.
Taxes are a sensitive issue and while it may not be evident in all the newspaper stories City Council really has worked very hard to make this a discussion of last resort. We have cut jobs, frozen positions and cut services all to save money to avoid having a tax decision to make. We spent the first 8 months of 2006 studying the City’s financial condition with a panel of local financial experts in public meetings hoping to find a solution that we might have missed. The citizen panel noted that when they signed up for the job they thought for sure there was some government fat somewhere to be found but by the end they reported that they saw no other option than to discuss taxes and that was what they recommended to City Council.
City Council thanked the citizen Blue Ribbon Panel for the many hours of study but as you might imagine they were still a bit uncomfortable with the prospect of raising taxes so they directed the City staff to hold public meetings in each Ward to get citizen reaction to the Panel’s recommendations.
We held another 10 meetings visiting each Ward, we ran surveys and information articles in the Tree City Bulletin, we set up a web site (City Finance Study) dedicated to the financial study and tax recommendations, we ran stories on the KENT360 Blog site, and the Record Courier continued to cover this issue with a number of news stories as well. I raise these points only to say that Council has made it a priority for this to be an open process and to engage the community at every step of the way. That’s why it has taken over 2 years from the start of the study work to Council action on the citizen recommendations.
I understand frustration with taxes and I can tell you so does City Council -that’s why they haven’t changed the City’s income tax for 24 years. I regret that the discussion of the reciprocity issue has occurred in isolation from the total package of recommendations offered by the Blue Ribbon Panel because the Panel members worked really hard to that say all of us in Kent are in this together and all of us need to be part of the solution.
Their solution intentionally included pieces of tax changes that would spread the burden as fairly as possible across all segments of the community. It included a small reduction in reciprocity that would impact people that live here but work elsewhere. It included a small income tax rate hike that would impact people that worked here but lived outside of Kent. It included a small increase in the property tax rate to share some of the financial needs with seniors and retirees that don’t pay income tax. It included some fee changes and it also challenged the city staff to find more cost savings measures.
The Panel believed strongly that we all have a stake in Kent’s future so we all need to be willing to contribute our fair share and they saw fair share as meaning a little bit spread over the entire city can go a long way. And we’ll continue to do our best as your City staff to make sure we stretch those dollars as far as they can go.